Tuesday, March 06, 2012

How to Create a Compelling Character, Addendum: Add A Moment of Humanity

Note: Ive updated and expanded this post here.
Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so you want to hit the ground running: clarify who your hero is right away, then quickly establish their long-standing problem, their new opportunity, and the unforeseen conflict it causes, so that you can get into the heat of your story.   

But great characters should not merely fulfill their role in your story.  You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will convince the audience that this character is more than just a plot device.

The moment of humanity can take different forms:
  • An out-of-character moment, where we realize that this character won’t just be one-note. 
  • A unique-but-universal moment, that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen onscreen before.
  • An oddball moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the movie. 
When I was doing The First 15 Minutes Project, I asked for every movie “What’s the Moment We Realize We Love This Guy?”  In retrospect, the answer was usually the Moment of Humanity, so let’s look at those again:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice’s default personality trait is her humbleness, and in her first dialogue scene she’s awed by her boss, but she has a brief moment where she can’t help but remind him that he didn’t give her the grade she clearly feels she deserved. 
  • The 40 Year Old Virgin: In this case, it’s the first shot, of Andy trying to pee with a morning erection, certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I'd see onscreen.  (Another moment comes later, when Andy cleans up at the poker game, giving us a much needed brief moment of easy triumph for this very weak character.)
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the perp if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.  It’s not a crack in the façade, but it’s certainly an oddball choice that doesn’t serve the forward momentum of the script, and that’s enough.
  • Mickey in The Fighter:  Once again, this is an overly humble character who finally shows a moment of pride, when Charlene the bartender goads him into it.
  • Casablanca: This is an interesting case, in that Rick is nothing but contradictions: tough but self-deprecating, feared but merciful, lacking in morals but strictly ethical… Rick is the most complex and least plot-driven character on the list.  He’s nothing but friction.
  • Modern Times: Right away, we get a unique-but-universal moment, when the tramp is working the assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose. 
  • Breaking Away: As with Popeye, we love Dave because of his oddball choices.  Why is this whitebread Indiana kid  pretending to be Italian?  
I could go on, but I’ll stop there.  Obviously this is one of the most subjective and hard-to-nail-down rules, but it’s still worth thinking about.  In addition to establishing your character’s goals and flaws, do you give them a little moment to stop pushing the plot forward and show a little unvarnished humanity?


j.s. said...

This may seem obvious, but I'd add a minor addendum to this addendum: "And make these moments personal." By which I mean, that they resonate with you, the writer. Not that they necessarily "happened" to you or someone you know, but that they ring true to you and make you care. Because if you care, then everybody else might. But if you don't, then they won't. This is the part of writing that is a bit like acting. Even if you're working on assignment, punching up the genre-iest kind of movie, you need to find a way to connect with the characters personally. And this is one of the best ways.

Matt Bird said...

Very true. As much as I pile up shortcuts and tricks to make characters sympathetic, I'm also aware that, if I look back at all my characters, the ones that readers like best are the ones I most identify with. Surprise: it's hard to get readers to root for a character who I'm not rooting for.